22 September 2019
When Hamwic Harriers signed up to marshal the Winchester Half Marathon we’d all expected to be standing around in searing heat trying not to burn or dehydrate. All kinds of drinks were purchased in preparation for the long, hot day, along with snacks to keep us going and jelly sweets to give out to the runners. Commando had even bought paper dishes to put the sweets in. Today was the day though and dehydration looked like it would be the least of our worries.
A look at the weather forecast on Saturday proved to be a hit of a wake up call. Winchester was going to be hit by heavy showers on Sunday morning. Not the best weather for marshalling a half marathon. When I suggested wearing my dry robe Commando pointed out it might get a little hot and heavy, especially as we’d have to walk from Winchester to St Cross and back and the temperatures were set to be in the high teens. In the end I decided my Iceland coat might be better. CJ, who’d somehow got roped into marshalling to make up the numbers, had Commando’s waterproof jacket, like a dry robe but not quite as heavy.
As Commando was pacing and Kim was tail walking, the morning began a little earlier than was strictly necessary. CJ was quite excited to get a look inside the VIP changing room in Wnchester’s Guildhall. I was just glad of a warm place to sit and a cup of half decent coffee. Outside, it was dark and damp with a promise of heavy rain to come. Usually, this is where I’d be hanging out until the race started, taking photos of the pacers. Today, I didn’t even have my camera with me. My phone would suffice for the walk across the water meadows to our marshalling point.
Rob was giving a marshal briefing at the end of Five Bridges Road at half past nine, so CJ and I left the Guildhall at around half past eight, long before the pacer team photo was taken. At least it wasn’t raining….yet.
We cut through the Colebrook Street car park and along the little hidden alley to the Cathedral. At this time on Sunday morning the area was completely deserted so I took the opportunity to snap a quick shot along Curle’s Passage before turning left towards Cheyney Court and College Street. Cathedral Close is one of my favourite Winchester haunts. Today though, there was no time to linger and admire the beautiful fifteenth century building, once home to the Bishop of Winchester’s official, we had a race to marshal. A couple of hurried photographs were taken as we dashed through Prior’s Gate.
Soon enough we’d left the city behind and were making our way across the water meadows. The Itchen, or at least a culverted part of it, tumbled along beside us. This was the walk John Keats took every day when he lived here and where he composed his poem To Autumn. These views would make anyone want to write poetry.
We marched along, when really I’d have rather been dawdling. Past a lone swan and a field of fat and fluffy sheep. The cows grazing in the shadow of St Catherine’s Hill watched us pass. Thankfully there was a fence between us. The hill, with its topknot of trees, look grim and foreboding under the steel grey sky. We hurried on.
Approaching St Cross Hospital we came to a horse chestnut tree with russet leaves. Closer inspection showed the autumnal hues were not quite what they seemed. The leaves were dry and crispy, the result of hot sun rather than the season’s change.
As we crossed the bridge to the St Cross meadows I could see cows grazing. This was not good news. The meadow is unfenced and we would have no choice but to pass the beasts.
The knot of white cows eyed us suspiciously as we walked towards the hospital. With quite a large expanse of rough grass between us and them I didn’t think they were too much of a threat but I eyed them back all the same. The scary cow on the Itchen Navigation the other week told me cows can move surprisingly fast when they take a dislike to you. Here there was nowhere to escape them if they did.
We got past the main herd with nothing but a few hard stares but further on, opposite the hospital walls, there were a couple more cows much nearer the path. Despite my dire warnings, CJ, who can’t resist an animal even if it is dangerous, just had to tramp across the grass for a closer look. “If they attack you I’m not sticking around to watch,” I warned him.
Luckily for him, the cows in question weren’t of the mad variety. While I walked slowly onwards, my eyes fixed on him getting ever closer to the beasts, he inched towards them taking pictures. The cows didn’t look very impressed and gave him the evil eye but didn’t actually charge at him. Much to my relief, he stopped short of touching distance and was soon back with me on the path. To say I wasn’t impressed would be an understatement. As we walked on I gave him a lecture about the dangers of cows and all the people killed or injured by them. He just shrugged and rolled his eyes.
There was a marquee in the grounds of the hospital. Obviously some event was going on later but there was no time to investigate, we had a team briefing to get to. It was quite a relief to get through the gate and leave the cows behind. The avenue of trees was a delight to walk through and, before long, we were on Five Bridges Road.
The rain began to fall just as we reached Rob and the little knot of Hamwic Harrier marshals. We listened to the briefing, convinced the rain would soon stop. By the time everyone set off to go to their marshal posts though, it was teeming down.
CJ and I were stationed on Five Bridges Road. Unfortunately the trees didn’t provide much shelter. The rain was just too hard. Before long the road began to flood and we found ourselves standing in water. By the time the first runners began to zoom past it was clear my Iceland coat was not nearly as waterproof as I’d thought. It was also clear we were not going to be handing out any sweets. The paper dishes were like limp rags as soon as we got them out of the bag.
So we stood and we cheered and banged our bam bams together as each soggy runner came past. Soon there were hundreds of them, almost filling the narrow road and forcing us to stand on the boggy verge. Taking photos of them wasn’t an option. It was too wet to get my phone out of my bag. The Hamwic Harriers got the loudest cheers of course and, when Commando came past he stopped for a waterlogged kiss.
The gate that usually blocks traffic from coming along this disused road had been opened to let the runners through and we did have one large car to deal with. CJ bravely stood in front of it and forced it to stop. The young man inside was less than impressed. He rolled down his window and began to complain.
“This road is closed to traffic,” I told him. “The gates have only been opened to let the runners through.”
“I have animals to tend to,” he snarled.
We had no choice but to let him through. Although I wasn’t convinced he was telling the truth, he might be a farmer and there were animals in the fields. We watched him pass. A couple of hundred yards or so down the road he stopped and got out of the car. What he did next was hidden by the trees but, as there are no gates into the fields there and he got back into the car again within a couple of minutes, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t tending any animals. In all probability he was a chancer. There were stop go boards on St Cross Road holding up the traffic to let the runners through. He’d probably turned off onto Five Bridges Road thinking he could get through to Winchester that way and then realised it was a dead end with no way out, at least for cars.
A few minutes later he drove back towards us. Now he looked quite shamefaced rather than angry. Again he wound down his window. This time he simply said “thank you,” and drove off.
The only other members of the public we saw were a couple of dog walkers and one lady with a fishing rod. Amongst the runners a man dressed in a Mexican wrestler’s mask gave us a momentary shock. For a split second he looked like a mugger. Commando later told me he actually was Mexican. There was also a man carrying a huge piece of wood on his shoulder. What this was all about is anyone’s guess but it looked like hard work.
When the runners began to thin out we knew our time standing in a giant puddle in the rain was almost over. Even so, it was a surprise to see tailwalkers Kim and Vicki come past so soon. The man they were with was walking, but at a very fast pace. He was going to be a record breakingly fast last finisher.
CJ and I gathered up our bags and tagged along behind. The walk back along Five Bridges Road and the Navigation trail was much longer than our early morning walk across the water meadows but we had to really push ourselves to keep up. The rain was still falling and this, and the fast pace, meant no stops to take pictures.